How to Give Up Writing and Other Bad Habits

There’s nothing quite like the early days of being a writer. Words suddenly carry more weight, and the thoughts behind them dive deeper than you ever thought possible, uncovering rare pearls of wisdom and buried secrets of the id. You discover and explore, imagine and create. You don’t have thoughts like Is there a market for this? or Is that cliché? And you’ll never be more impressed with your own writing as when you finish your first story. Because writing isn’t at all what you imagine at first.

It’s not sitting in Italian bistros, sipping espresso while people around you point and whisper, wondering if that’s really you. It’s not even whiling away your days reading and thinking and dreaming, far away from the monotony of a regular 9-5. It’s mostly sitting home alone on Friday nights, wrestling with your deepest insecurities, and it’s only fun when you’re winning. Indeed, you might be called to write, but you’re not called to fame or success. You’re not even called to just getting by. The universe doesn’t need you to write. You do.

Presumably.

When you first start out it all seems so possible. That cocksure Han Solo swagger—Never tell me the odds—comes so effortlessly then. But as it turns out, that strutting confidence hardens quicker than carbonite. You’ll send stories off to publishers like children to college, sure of their inevitable success, but in a few months, the rejection letters will start rolling in. You’ll keep at it, of course. You’ll persist. This is all part of the process. But this persisting is thirsty work, and a little embarrassing down the line. At some point, even the lunatic realizes persistence isn’t the key to getting the government out of his head.

If someone told me when I first started out how long it would take just to sell my first short story, let alone a much longer piece, I’m not sure I would have ever started down this path. People tell you it’s hard work, which it is, but they don’t tell you it’s just shy of impossible. Now I’m here, and I can’t go back. I think in story. I see the world in story. Some part of me, I think, always has. Fortunately, no one’s yet put it on a list of pre-existing conditions.

It’s rough business being a writer. If you want some sense of this, just take a look at any paying market’s acceptance rate: often less than 1%. Take heart, I guess. If you send them 100 stories, you’re bound to sell one! You can make it sound romantic as hell when describing the process to your friends—indeed, that’s one of the benefits. Writers spend their days building castles and keeps and palisades of sand, marching clay soldiers and mud siege engines against the rolling tide of rejection and all its indifference. And these thoughts might help you through the eight hours at the office or making five-hundred frappuccinos. But they won’t help you get published. Only writing does that. Lots and lots of writing. Reading too. Don’t forget the reading—possibly just as important as the writing. Market research helps as well. Also networking. You should really know some people by now. And, I’m not saying you should quit your job, but if you’re taking this seriously at all that 9-5’s kind of getting in the way.

Now I realize this might all sound quite bitter (to be fair, if I were a chocolate, I’d be of the 90% cacao variety). But the ultimate point is that if you’re trying to make it as a writer, it is a costly and discouraging enterprise. That brings us to the advice portion of this blog. Because writing is fun and all, but researching markets is suspiciously job-like despite the lack of paychecks or benefits. And that publication looking for the gritty-realism Adventure Time fan-fiction you wrote might be hard to find (Duotrope helps).

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Maybe instead of writing you could make a business of cute dogs wearing hats.

So here’s my advice if you think you want to be a writer, and it’s really very simple: Try giving it up. That’s right. Stop writing. See how it feels, what else pulls at you. Maybe you’re called to music instead. Or accounting. Believe me, if you’re called to be a writer, you’ll come back. And if you’re not, you will have saved yourself a lot of heartache, discouragement, and disappointment. Those who have “made it” suffered and fought for their success. They failed a hundred times before they met victory. And, dammit, you will too!

But only if that’s what you really want.

Because writing isn’t this glamorous thing we like to imagine for ourselves. It’s mostly hard work and self-doubt with the vague possibility that when you’re dead someone might remember you said something. If you can, I recommend giving it up. There’s a whole world out there you could be seeing, rather than dreaming up new ones in your head. But if you can’t give it up—if your characters wake you in the middle of the night with their hopes and fears, if you feel compelled to solve their problems like they’re some kind of unconscious representation of your own—then I’m afraid there’s no saving you. You’re a writer. Congratulations on finding your calling, at least. Some people search their whole lives without finding it. I’m sorry it isn’t more lucrative, but I hear Starbucks is hiring.

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Learning to Love Your Crippling Rejections

If you’re a writer, odds are you’ve already become familiar with the dreaded form rejection, the pre-written Thank You, No Thank You used by publishers large and small. Form rejections can be a real kick in the ego for a writer, but they’re also a necessary part of publishing. Every day, editors wade through towering slush piles of stories, each tale hoping to find its home in their magazine. Nearly all of them will get a rejection in some form or another, though a lot of them are fantastic, weird, and well-written. Many will go on to get published elsewhere. But that time may be a long ways from now, after many, many more rejections.

The first speculative fiction story I ever submitted was a 15k word novelette sent to Analog Science Fiction. I worked really hard on it, did research beforehand, read an issue of the magazine, and ultimately felt optimistic about my chances of publication. At 8 cents a word, it was the first time I thought I could actually make a living as a writer. How hard could it be? What followed were four months of anticipation, a query sent when I thought my story was lost, and a form rejection politely telling me they would not be paying my rent.

So what solace can a struggling writer find in this steady income of disappointment? Well, for starters, understand it’s probably not your complete lack of talent keeping you from publication.

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Even Cody thinks you should be writing.

There are several determining factors beyond just, “Is this story awesome?” First of all, publishers receive hundreds of submissions, and the bigger and more high-paying the publisher, the more stories they get each month. That means they generally have less time to give each story, and once the list has been whittled down to the very best, there’s still not enough room for them all. Great stories are let go. It might be that it doesn’t work well with the other stories for that issue, or that it doesn’t really fit the magazine’s style, or maybe they just have it out for you personally. Okay, that last one isn’t a thing. Not usually…

Being a writer is like playing a big game of Cards Against Humanity. The card reader gives you an interesting prompt, and you think you’ve got a really great card to answer it, but as often as not, you’re unlucky. Your brilliant, subtle, dark humored joke is too similar to the one read before, or too dissimilar, or the reader didn’t get it, or they just didn’t like it. You were so confident, so sure you had it in the bag, and then they went with Bees?

If that seems unfair, remember that the editors are in their own little game, with the stories they’ve chosen from the slush pile comprising their hand. Editors need the very best, because they don’t have the writer’s freedom to keep on trying. Losing means the end, and the internet is littered with the digital bones of magazines that didn’t make it.

Unlike the magazines you submit to–who have to worry about paying writers, artists, editors, and designers–you only have to worry about you and your writing. Like applying for any job these days, getting someone’s attention is partly a number’s game: the right story finding the right reader at the right time. A rejection often means nothing more than try again. No really, try again. And again. And again. It’s disheartening sure, but it’s that way for all of us, even the greats. We are like Sisyphus, rolling our stories up the long, wearisome slope of slush piles, only to have them cast down indifferently. If your story’s as good as you believe, then give it time, improve it, and one day the conditions will be just right. Instead of rolling back down the hill, crushing all of your hopes and dreams in the process, it will find a home and an audience to appreciate it. It will be better for having waited.

So don’t give up (unless you really want to). The perseverance–the refusal to surrender when the world doesn’t offer so much as a shrug to all your imagination and artistry—will mold you into something beautiful and probably debt-ridden: a real writer. Remember, rejection is the guarantee. It’s the tribulation we all must go through. The determining factor is your determination. If you’re a writer—a real writer—you keep at it. You keep writing. Giving up is for hobbyists and your uncle in real estate who keeps telling you he used to write.

The Story Behind the Outhouse

Along a stretch of Highway 37, there’s an abandoned outhouse squatting alone in the marshlands. Every time I drive past, I’m fascinated by it. Who built it? Why here? And to what purpose? Though the outhouse is only a quick, passing thing on the way to the Sonoma trails, it’s become a peculiar highlight. I like to think of this site the same way—highly questionable, easy to miss on your way somewhere else, but possibly hiding a few oddities.

In the weeks ahead, my story, “Introduction to the Epic of Centipidus,” will be published in the spring issue of Mad Scientist Journal (available on Amazon or you can wait for it to appear online this May). This was one of the first stories I ever wrote, and will be my first to appear in print. The story–written as an intro to a novel that doesn’t exist–found a great home in Mad Scientist Journal, where stories are presented as factual essays, articles, and brochures. It’s very exciting, and also something you can read while in an outhouse in the marshlands.

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